President Trump has agreed to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Diplomats and U.S.
allies are puzzled. They wonder why Trump, without securing concessions, would offer North Korea what it has pursued for decades: the first meeting between a North Korean leader and a sitting American president. The question answers itself. Trump wants to have the meeting because no previous president has done it. Trump talks tough, but he doesn’t focus on confronting America’s enemies. He focuses on competing with American politicians and defeating America’s friends.
Trump has always abused the people closest to him. He cheats on his wives. He insults his attorney general and his secretary of state. Last week, in a tweet, he announced that he was looking to get rid of some people in his administration. At a White House press conference, he boasted that he could easily replace them: “I have a choice of anybody.”
Trump also loves to keep score. On Saturday, he went to a rally in Pennsylvania. It was supposed to be for Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone, who faces a special election on Tuesday. Instead, Trump made the rally about himself. He bragged that in 2016, he had won the Electoral College, 306–223. (That’s not true: The tally was 306–232, and, for what it’s worth, Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million. He didn’t mention that.) He mimicked the tears of reporters who, he claimed, had cried on TV about his victory. And he made clear that if Saccone loses on Tuesday, it’s not Trump’s fault. “I won this district, like, by 22 points,” the president crowed. “And we just had a poll. We’re more popular now than we were on Election Day. This guy should win easily.”
To build himself up, Trump tears down previous presidents of both parties. Last week at the White House, he took a shot at George W. Bush for failing to control North Korea. At Saturday’s rally, he scorned Bush for wasting money in the Middle East. On Twitter, Trump blamed Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, for dumb trade deals and lost jobs. Now Trump is going after President Reagan. The Gipper was “not great” on trade, the 45th president told the crowd in Pennsylvania. Trump added that his own tax cut was “bigger than Reagan.”
This obsession with winning is childish and tedious. But it also blinds Trump to what he’s losing. He’s so busy keeping score against political rivals and predecessors that he doesn’t notice what he’s giving away to other countries. On Monday, in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump took credit for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. “Many presidents” had talked about doing that, said Trump, but “I was able to do it.” He seemed unaware that this supposed feat was a concession to Netanyahu, which previous presidents had held back as a bargaining chip. The next day, at a press conference, Trump was asked about the lessons of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election. He could have talked about preventing Russia from interfering in 2018. Instead, the president said he’d win again. “[W]e’re going to do very well on the ’18 election,” he predicted.
That’s how Trump sees the meeting with Kim. It’s not about confronting North Korea. It’s a chance to upstage previous presidents. At the rally for Saccone, Trump lovingly recalled how South Korean officials, outside the White House on Thursday night, had stood before a “big throng of press” and “announced that North Korea, Kim Jong-un, would like to meet with President Trump.” Trump ridiculed the idea that “Obama could have done that.” Obama “would not have done it,” he jeered. “Neither would Bush, and neither would Clinton. And they had their shot, and all they did was nothing.”
In the contest for Kim’s favor, Trump, his surrogates, and the sycophants on his national security team construe any gesture from North Korea as a major concession. “We have gotten more than any previous administration,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo declared Sunday on Face the Nation. In truth, unlike previous administrations, Trump has gotten nothing. So Pompeo spun the status quo as a gift from Kim. “He has allowed [us] to continue our [military] exercises on the peninsula,” the CIA director argued with obsequious pride.
Kim gets this reverence because he’s a dogged enemy. When the crowd in Pennsylvania booed Kim’s name, Trump intervened, asking them to “be very nice.” But Trump savages Kim’s neighbors, South Korea and Japan, whom Trump regards as our economic rivals, not our military allies. “We lose on trade, plus we give them military [support] where we’re subsidizing them tremendously,” Trump complained on Tuesday, referring to these and other allies. The next day, Trump sneered: “Many of the countries that treat us the worst on trade, and on military, are our ‘allies,’ as they like to call them.”
Trump saves his harshest invective for Europe. Last week, he threatened the European Union with “a big tax of 25 percent on their cars.” At Saturday’s rally, he all but declared a trade war on the EU. “Why did they band together? To screw the United States on trade,” Trump told the crowd. “Here it would be called a monopoly. It wouldn’t be allowed,” he said. He vowed to target German companies if he doesn’t get the trade concessions he wants: “We’re going to tax Mercedes-Benz. We’re going to tax BMW.” As for NATO, Trump shrugged last week that the U.S. contribution “helps [Europe] a lot more than it helps us.”
Trump proudly told the rally audience that he had stiffed Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in a private phone call. He said Peña Nieto had asked him to “make a statement that Mexico will not pay for the wall.” Instead, Trump recalled, “I said, ‘Bye bye. We’re not making a deal.’ ” Trump bragged that he had wrecked Peña Nieto’s outreach to the United States. “He was going to come to Washington,” Trump clucked. “We actually broke it up.” Many countries, Trump added, are begging for exemptions from the steel and aluminum tariffs he just announced. In a derisive tone, Trump mimicked their phone calls to him: “We don’t want the tariffs. What do we have to do?”
But the worst thing about Trump’s perverse treatment of friends and enemies isn’t that he punishes our allies. It’s that he strives to emulate dictators. A week ago, in a private speech to Republican donors, Trump quipped that he’d like to be “president for life,” like Chinese President Xi Jinping. At Saturday’s rally, he brushed this off as a joke. But he went on to praise Xi, with fierce sincerity, for executing drug dealers. “I don’t know that the United States, frankly, is ready” to do that, said Trump, but we “should.”
Congratulations, Mr. President. You’ve one-upped Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Obama. You’ve humiliated our allies, renounced human rights, and snagged a photo-op with the head of the world’s most repressive state. You win.
One more thing
If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus